Joan of Arc

Jeanne d’Arc, 1900, 10m19s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 264-275

At the age of thirteen, while tending sheep, Joan of Arc is visited by Saints Catherine and Margaret, and then by Saint Michael, who orders her to free France from the English yoke and to lead the Dauphin to the French throne. She returns home in a trance-like state, but won’t cross the threshold. Her uncle tries to persuade her to stay in her native village, but she refuses and runs off. She reaches the fortified city of Vaucouleurs, and persuades the guard to admit her. She finds the garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, enjoying a wild party with his friends. Joan tries to convince him of her plan, and though he initially rubbishes the idea (and has to be restrained from throwing her out), but Joan persuades him to give her his sword and entrust his army to her. Orléans is freed from the English oppressor, and Joan leads a huge army through the town. On 17 July 1429, in the cathedral of Rheims, King Charles VII is blessed by Archbishop Regnault. Joan and her army try to break in to the castle of Compiègne. After a pitched battle, Joan is captured by the English. Her followers try to scale the castle, but to no avail. Joan awakes in a cell, where she has another visitation from Saint Michael, this time flanked by Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine. The jailer orders her to accompany him. On 15 March 1431, Joan is put on trial, with the indictment read by Bishop Pierre Cauchon. He orders her to sign a retraction of her claim to have heard voices. She refuses and throws the quill on the floor. In the market square at Rouen, a pyre is constructed, with a sign reading ‘Relapsed Heretic’. Flanked by Cauchon and his allies, Joan is tied to the post and burned. A soldier adds fuel to the fire, and falls to the ground, overwhelmed both by the smoke and by the magnitude of what he has contributed to. But Joan has ascended to heaven.

Despite being made as early as 1900, Georges Méliès’ Joan of Arc was in fact the second adaptation of the legend: Georges Hatot’s The Execution of Joan of Arc (Execution de Jeanne d’Arc) was made in 1897. However, with its ten-minute running time and eleven separate scenes, Méliès’ film was undoubtedly the first to attempt an overview of the entire saga, from the teenage Joan hearing voices to her military triumphs, capture and execution. In fact, when compared with the earlier multi-sequence The Dreyfus Affair (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899) and Cinderella (Cendrillon, 1899), the narrative of Joan of Arc is noticeably more coherent, with just one digression to a scene not featuring Joan (the blessing of Charles VII).

The title role was played by one Mademoiselle Calvière, with Méliès regular Jeanne d’Alcy as her mother, and Méliès himself in multiple roles. As with Méliès’ other longer-form films, there are a reasonable number of extras, though the primary justification for an otherwise interminable march-past through Orléans seems to be so that Méliès can convince us that he really had a cast of thousands at his disposal. In actual fact, his performers would exit the shot at the right of the screen, and would quickly dash behind the backdrop to reappear again on the left.

Other effects are more sophisticated, and are dotted throughout the film. The appearances of the various angels in the opening scene were achieved by a combination of dissolve and superimposition - not that much earlier, he’d have been forced to use a much cruder jump-cut. Saint Michael is sporting an animated halo, presumably a mechanical effect being cranked by an invisible underling. Later, Joan’s army lays siege to the castle of Compiègne (clearly visible as a painted backdrop, since it wobbles when a ladder is placed against it) before being captured and burned at the stake, an effect achieved by releasing lots of smoke and stencil-tinting the print so that it looks as though it’s glowing with unbearable heat. Finally, a gloriously kitschy conclusion in Heaven echoes the similar apotheosis that concluded Cinderella (1899).

But Joan of Arc also proved that Méliès was becoming increasingly sophisticated as a metteur en scène. In terms of film grammar, he’s still conceiving his film as a series of lengthy tableaux shot from a fixed camera position and mostly separated by dissolves, but the blocking and compositions make effective use of the frame (particularly in the festivities in Robert de Baudricourt’s castle, the siege of Compiègne and Joan’s trial and execution), and once the march through Orléans and the blessing of Charles VII have finished, the film moves at one hell of a lick. Presumably Méliès could rely on his audience’s familiarity with the story to get away with not providing too much background information, but even without prior knowledge it’s much clearer what’s going on here than was the case with the Dreyfus films. Other directors, notably Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), Robert Bresson (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962) and Jacques Rivette (Jeanne la Pucelle, 1993), would probe far more deeply into the legend, but Méliès’ film deserves credit for being the first serious effort, and one that ranges rather wider than its director’s reputation as a trick-film specialist might suggest.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD starts off in dreadful condition, with the whole of the first scene marred by severe damage. However, things quickly improve, and much of the rest of the film looks ravishing, augmented by the stencil colours. This is the first of a handful of Méliès titles to feature a soundtrack narration, delivered in heavily accented French by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg. The decision to record it in English triggered knee-jerk complaints from purists, though in actual fact this is Méliès’ original text, written in English to make his films more accessible to the international marketplace. (His films on the Dreyfus Affair would certainly have benefited from something similar). The narration is accompanied by an electronic score from Brian Benison, which makes frequent use of a martial mode as Joan’s military victories pile up.

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One Response to “Joan of Arc”

  1. Mischa von Perger Says:

    There is no digression to a scene not featuring Joan. As a matter of fact, Joan was present when Charles VII was crowned in Rheims. And, of course, Méliès did not leave her out of the scene. She stands upright behind the king, proudly presenting her famous banner and wearing her bright armor.

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